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'It's a world we don't even relate to'

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February 10, 2010 - Rhonda Hervey is half a world away from her husband Mark this Valentine's Day, but she has a new appreciation for the sacrifice he is making for them as he works and lives in Qatar, a wealthy Arab emirate located on a peninsula in the Persian Gulf.

"I have a new level of understanding of what he's going through," said Rhonda, who recently took a two-week vacation from her job as administrative assistant to the Brandon Schools superintendent to visit Mark in Qatar.

"He's given up life here and away from family to make a better life for us."

Mark Hervey has been in Qatar since October working as the shipping and receiving supervisor for BEMO USA, a construction company overseeing the international airport project in Doha, the capital city. He will be there for three years, with only a few visits home. Rhonda left Michigan Jan. 17 and flew to Washington, DC. From there, a 14-hour flight took her to Doha, Qatar. She did some research of the customs of the Muslim country beforehand, but still had some fears of the unknown.

"They have strict cultural beliefs," Rhonda noted. "I was conservative in my dress. I didn't have to wear traditional middle eastern attire, because I was a visitor, but I didn't want to offend anyone. I never felt unsafe, but I felt a little uncomfortable at times because it is so dramatically different than here."

While Rhonda took care to make sure her shoulders and thighs were covered, all she could see of the women around her were their eyes, as Qatari females that she saw out in public were covered from head to toe in black garment, with only eyeholes cut into a veil. It is currently winter in Qatar, which means temperatures in the mid- to upper-70s. She wonders how the women bear the required Muslim clothing in the summertime, when temperatures reach up to 130 degrees.

"Never visit in August," she laughed. The extreme weather makes for a mostly brown landscape of rocks and desert that Rhonda found to be rather ugly. Qatar is developing very quickly, with lots of new construction.

"They've put themselves on the map all of a sudden," Rhonda said.

"There are spectacular buildings and higher end malls everywhere." She and Mark visited three malls during her visit and she saw lots of familiar American stores like H&M, Coach, and Claire's Boutique. All had their name in Arabic with the English name next to it. She also saw American restaurant chains including Applebee's Chili's, Dairy Queen and Dunkin' Donuts, all with menus similar to here. When she dined at Arabic restaurants, she noted that lamb was often served. What was more difficult to find was alcohol, which is forbidden to the natives. Cocktails were fancy juice concoctions. As a visitor, Rhonda was able to get a martini at a high-end hotel, but at a cost of $20, she only had one. Entertainment was hard to come by, too.

"There was no nightlife," Rhonda said.

"The Arab women love to shop, because that's all they have to do." She saw some women shopping for cocktail dresses and wondered where they would wear them, since it wouldn't be in public. Although the dress code is strict, women are allowed to drive. Rhonda described traffic in Qatar as "horrendous," however, with lots of speeding, lane changing without signals, continuous honking, and drivers cutting others off. Traffic laws don't seem to be enforced, yet if an American is involved in an accident with a Qatari, the American is assumed to be at fault and will be jailed. It makes her afraid for Mark, who recently got a Qatari driver's license. No cars on the road are allowed to have dents or chipped paint, either. Rhonda noted that half the people in Qatar are foreigners from countries including India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Thailand, and Nepal, who live in labor camps, making very little money, "almost like slave labor." The laborers see their families once every two years and send all the money they make home to them. Rhonda's stay in Qatar also gave her a renewed gratitude for the freedoms she has as an American.

"We are free to dress how we like, worship how we want to," she said. "We have a lot of freedoms we take for granted. I did feel that it was good to see how another part of the world lives." Rhonda is lonely without Mark, who hopes to retire at the end of the 3-year Qatar stint, but she keeps busy with her job and family. The couple use skype webcasts and e-mail on the weekends. "We're always together, so it's a big change for us," she said. "Hopefully it will be worth it in the long run."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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